Revolt Into Style
For one glorious summer, the joy and optimism of The Stone Roses caught the mood of a nation. Bob Stanley looks back on the making of a classic.
FEBRUARY 1989, A canteen-cum-gymnasium in the defunct Middlesex Polytechnic. Friends from Manchester had been talking up a group I’d always assumed to be ex- goths and I was hanging around with 40 or 50 other people in this obscure venue off the Seven Sisters Road with middling expectations. I lurked at the back, but in front of the stage were a group of people who I assumed to be nouveau hippies. Very brightly dressed and very excitable. Unusually, most of them were girls, one of whom wore a denim jacket with The Jimi Hendrix Experience scrawled down one arm, The Stone Roses down the other. Then the band dramatically entered the hall, walking right through the crowd, the singer waving a school bell over his head. Most moody too, but the rolling gait, the baggy’ denims, the daft hats â€” I wasn’t sure whether to laugh out loud. Forty minutes later I was laughing, shouting… Jesus Christ! On a side street in Tottenham, The Stone Roses had just played the most inspiring gig I’d ever seen.
The band’s self-titled debut album had been completed just prior to this rash of gigs. It had taken them, effectively, five years and was made in what were retrospectively very odd circumstances. The band had signed to Zomba Music, a South African company whose UK label, Jive, was possibly the most unhip in the world. But their A&R man Roddy McKenna had been tight with the Manchester scene for years â€” his previous employment included talent scouting for the BBC’s Oxford Road Show. A long-term Clash and Dexys fan, he became fast friends with lan Brown in particular and convinced them that a label previously synonymous with Tight Fit was a suitable home for the Roses. McKenna convinced Zomba that a new guitar-orientated label should be created, and so the new Silvertone logo graced the Roses’ records rather than Jive.
A brief connection with Geoff Travis had led to the suggestion of producer John Leckie. “He was a learned man,” recalls McKenna. “My office was inside the studio and I used to see first hand what harm a producer with a monstrous ego could do to a band. John Leckie knew the ins and outs of etiquette.” The band had toyed with the idea of working with Sly and Robbie or DJ Pierre who, under his Phuture moniker, had shaped 1988’s acid house soundtrack. But Leckie had experience with George Martin and Phil Spector, which counted heavily with John Squire. He got the nod, and rehearsals started at Stockport’s Coconut Grove studios in June ’88.
“We always listened to psychedelia,” recalls Mani. “That’s why John Leckie was right for the first LP I’d got these great spoof psychedelic LPs by the Dukes Of Stratosphear which he’d produced.” The first day Reni was late and rang the studio to ask Leckie if he could borrow a tenner for a cab. “In the meantime,” recalls the producer, “Gareth Evans had arrived. When Reni arrived and asked for the tenner Gareth shouted, ‘Don’t ask the producer for money, ask me’ and punched him. There were bloody noses, they were thumping each other against the wall, and then Reni just left. I thought, This is a good start.”
Moving to Battery Studios in Willesden â€” right opposite Zomba’s office â€” the recording was done in dead time, from seven at night until as late as seven the next morning. McKenna: “They wanted to keep an air of mystique, maybe that’s why they wanted to record at night, to avoid meeting the record company.” Leckie believes they had no choice and recording at Battery may even have been in their contract with Zomba. “The band were staving in Neasden or somewhere, and they didn’t get any sleep for three days. It was a bit of a nightmare for them.” Adding to this fairly ramshackle situation was Jive’s in-house engineer Paul Schroeder. When John Leckie asked him to set up Reni’s drum kit, Schroeder had to confess he’d never recorded drums before. Surreally, Leckie remembers, “Sam Fox used to hang out in the offices and make us tea. Her and lan got on great.”
Mani: “We lodged in this African woman’s guest house in Kensal Green. Her name was Petronella. We were sharing this house with The Bhundu Boys and we’d still be sat up all night doing hot knives while the odd business man would come and go in the morning. Hot knife frenzy. No wonder that LP sounds so mellow and laid-back. We were constantly stoned to fuck. Hot knives and trips were the order ot the day.”
lan Brown: “We had beginnings and endings for all the songs, everything was worked out. Sugar Spun Sister, for example, had to finish on a particular chord. We were absolute about how that should be â€” so well prepared. The Stone Roses never ever winged it. We never had to.”
Out of these sessions came four stone classics. The velvet-walled baroque of I Wanna Be Adored was sure to antagonise with its brass balled arrogance. She Bangs The Drums was crystalline pop, sheer exuberance. As a band, they seemed genuinely democratic and each member helped create a perfect balance. Their tour tapes mixed up hip hop, house and PiL, Burning Spear and Jimi Hendrix. The Beades’ influence, especially on Mani’s bass lines, loomed large. But songs like the jazz-flecked Shoot You Down and the superfluidity’ of Waterfall were pure gold, wholly original, owing everything to the fact that the four boys were performing in perfect harmony. Before Mani joined they’d sounded too stodgy. When Reni left they promptly disintegrated. Not since The Beatles had a group been so complete.
The Roses clearly were a band you’d die for. They built a genuine love among their followers without any of the machismo of, say, The Clash. Jeff Barrett, who founded the Heavenly label, recalls: “It was an all-encompassing joy â€” unlike The Clash which was rhetoric. It didn’t have the ‘we care’ angle that the previous generation had, but the Roses were obviously a humanist band.”
Unlike almost all of their contemporaries, the Roses didn’t shy away from politics. This was most obvious on Elizabeth My Dear, but pretty much enveloped the album, whether on Made Of Stone (“Bad money dies, I love the scene”) or the libertarian Waterfall (“So good to have equalised, to lift up the lids of your eyes”). This was/is a way of life.
“Underachieving was cool in the ’80s,” says Roddy McKenna. “The Roses were quite different. They really had aspirations to be massive and that was a benchmark.” McKenna was impressed by the group’s self-belief, but sections of the press were less sure. A journalist from Uptown magazine asked them why they appeared to be so arrogant. “We are not arrogant, we are real,” explained John Squire. “What do you want? A bunch of fakes with prepared answers?” Though it was written four years previously; the anthemic This Is The One was an incredible hymn of self-assurance that at once ted their detractors and summed up the exuberance of the whole album.
I Am The Resurrection, the album’s closer, was about pop as a potential saviour and, again, it had to exceed almost all that had gone before it to really work.
“It was me who coaxed them to do that ending on Resurrection,” recalls Brown. “Only prog rock groups and players up their own arses did 10-minute guitar solos. But I kept saying to them, Look you’re great. Let’s do a 10-minute song where you’re just playing and playing and playing. For two days I watched them work out the ending of that song. It was just fantastic and it still sounds amazing.”
The Stone Roses was released at a crucial time. Guitar heroics were in favour for the tirst time since punk â€” Neil Young was the most droppable of names, Galaxie 5OO breezed into London, Teenage Fanclub surfaced from the wreckage of C86 also rans The Boy Hairdressers. At the same time, Italian house was everywhere â€” Black Box’s Ride On Time spent the bulk of the summer at Number 1 â€” and so was Ecstasy. “The sooner the difference between cultures and traditions are eroded, the better for everybody,” said lan Brown, neatly encapsulating a wild year in which Andrew Weatherall worked with My Bloody Valentine, Juan Atkins was seen hanging around the Creation offices, and people all over the country seemed to find The Stone Roses central to all of it.
Simply, The Stone Roses sounded like the sun shining. Yet even on its release, it still had to rely on word of mouth. Though Melody Maker and Sounds rated it extremely highly, the key reviewâ€” by Jack Barren in NME â€” concluded, “This is quite good. Just.” In a final burst of press cynicism before even Barren fell under the record’s spell, he recalled that “last weekend someone solemnly told me that this eponymous album was the greatest record ever made”. That someone was Jeff Barrett, and that was the way 4,000 people felt at Blackpool’s Empress Ballroom that summer.
So much for generational mystique. From the Blackpool gig onwards, things rapidly unravelled. Oasis burst into the void and within a few years, Cast and The Bluetones would be Top 10 regulars â€” the tragedy was that the instigators were, by then, miles adrift. “We’re anti-trivia above all else,” lan Brown said in 1989.
Although its moment was heartbreakingly brief, The Stone Roses continues to sound magical. “It’s timeless,” says Brown. “It still sounds fresh. I think if it came out this week it would still make an impact. I remember finally finishing the LP and John Leckie saving to us, ‘You’re going to do really well you know.’ And we just said, ‘Yeah, we know.’ And we did. We just felt it. He was a bit taken aback by our confidence. But we did know we were good.”